Entertainment » Theatre

Gutenberg! The Musical!

by Jennifer Bubriski
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Thursday Oct 9, 2008
Austin Ku as Doug and Brendan McNab as Bud in "Gutenberg! The Musical!".
Austin Ku as Doug and Brendan McNab as Bud in "Gutenberg! The Musical!".  

Shortly after the opening number of
Gutenberg! The Musical!, during which, I'll admit, I laughed frequently and loudly, I realized with growing unease that this would have been a great Saturday Night Live sketch. Unfortunately, it was a two-act musical with an awful lot left to go. While this musical about two wannabe Rodgers and Hammerstein who are pitching a musical about Johannes Gutenberg, inventor of the printing press, is intentionally stupid, it's not funny enough to be this stupid.

Now, funny stupid can be a good thing (the movie "Airplane" and most Will Ferrell performances being the prime examples), but there have to be smarts behind the stupid to make it work. Smarts are not what Bud and Doug, the duo responsible for the musical-within-this-musical, have in ample supply. Pitching their work to what they hope is a roomful of potential Broadway producers and playing all the parts in a "Les Miz"-sized cast, they do have enthusiasm aplenty. Whether proudly strutting as Gutenberg himself, sneering as the antagonist Bad Monk, who wants to keep Gutenberg's town of Schlimmer illiterate and therefore controllable, or mincing about as romantic interest Helvetica (yes, just like the font), actors Austin Ku as Doug and Brendan McNab at Bud are an energetic delight. Director Stephen Nachamie also gets to throw in clever bits, such as having the Doug and Bud literally wear many hats in order to play the roles, even in simulating a kick line.

Bud and Doug are also gleefully clueless about just how bad their musical is, and therein lies the problem. The two manages to mash together medieval Germany, anti-Semitism and Nazi references and every musical style imaginable into one mother of a crappy musical. Not only are Bud and Doug not the brightest bulbs, they think they're knowledgeable, so they patiently explain every detail to the audience in Sesame Street cum Barney the dinosaur delivery. Some of the pronouncements elicit giggles, ("What is "historical fiction"? It's fiction that's true!" or the scene setting that describes every house in the village as "made of dirty thatch") while most draw crickets.

Ku and McNab try to endow their characters with, if not exactly three dimensions, at least some humorous quirks (when Ku exclaims the musical's title with jazzy "Just Jack!" hands, it's a hoot). But they're not helped by a script that focuses too airlessly on Bud and Doug. There's no outside force to comment on the proceedings (Todd Gordon ably plays the piano but never interacts), and the show never really attempts to take a pin to the vanities of on or off Broadway.

While the show does it's best to quote every Broadway and pop song style there ever was (Les Miz bombastic act one finale, a country tune that's a dopey take on "Devil Went Down to Georgia," the charm song, the "I want" song, an Elvis-inspired tune, white boy rap, and an 80's pop song that morphs into gospel), all of them are parody that would be edited out of an initial "Forbidden Broadway" sing-through. Shows like "Urinetown" and "Bat Boy" have aped and then transcended this familiar territory before and far better, and if you want the best example of a Disneyfied "I want" song or dueling parts finale, just get the DVD of "South Park: Bigger, Long and Uncut."

Show creators Scott Brown and Anthony King come out of the improvisational sketch comedy of the Upright Citizens' Brigade, and if I'd seen "Gutenberg!" there, I might be impressed with their long-form improve. But "Gutenberg!" is a scripted show that's been performed off Broadway and in London and really should be better or left looser as semi-improv so the actors can cut the bits that don't work (the biggest laugh of the performance, a nicely unexpected Sarah Palin joke, was probably thrown in by Ku in performance or rehearsal).

So, with a lack of sharp wit, no transcendent song that offers a glimmer of talent and no moment that sheds some light on the human condition or even makes you empathize with Bud and Doug, "Gutenberg!" leaves us with a few jokes stretched on an overly long frame. That means that "Gutenberg!" doesn't satirize bad musicals, it just emulates them.

Presented by the New Repertory Theatre, at the Arsenal Center for the Arts, Black Box Theater, in Watertown through October 26, go to www.newrep.org for tickets and more information

Jennifer has an opinion on pretty much everything and is always happy to foist it upon others.

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